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A cold, cold January. There is a blizzard. The storm rages for two days—howling winds, hail, sleet, snow. The power goes out. There’s coal to burn but it is hardly enough. Worst weather that I can recall in this hill station. Sick of it. Why do I stay here?
In March, there’s gentle weather at last. Peach, plum and apricot trees in blossom, birds making a racket in the branches. So this is why I stay here.
Darkness falls, and it is time to pull my chair to the window. Much that is lovely comes at this hour.
There is the fragrance of raat ki rani, queen of the night, from a neighbour’s balcony, two feet by two. And soon there will be moonlight falling on those white flowers, and moonbeam in my room. Sometimes a field mouse drops in for a bite (he remembers my dinner time). High in the treetops, an owl hoots softly, as if testing, trying to remember. The nightjar plays trombone, and the crickets join in to complete the orchestra. They go silent when the swamp deer calls. A leopard is out hunting.
A breeze has sprung up, it hums in the trees, and now the window is rattling. Time to shut the window. A star falls in the heavens.
The leaves are a fresh pale green in the spring rain. I can look at the trees from my window―look down on them almost, because the window is on the first floor of the cottage, and the hillside runs at a sharp angle into the ravine. I do nearly all my writing at this window seat. Whenever I look up, the trees remind me that they are there. They are my best critics. As long as I am aware of their presence, I may avoid the thoughtless and the trivial.
In the days when I walked a lot I went among the trees on my hillside often, acknowledging their presence with a touch of my hand against their trunks―the walnut’s smooth and polished; the pine’s patterned and whorled; the oak’s rough and gnarled, full of experience. The oak had been there the longest, and the wind had bent its upper branches and twisted a few, so that it looked shaggy and undistinguished. It was a good tree for the privacy of birds, its crooked branches spreading out with no particular effect; and sometimes the tree seemed uninhabited until there was a whirring sound, as of a helicopter approaching, and a party of long-tailed blue magpies shot out of the leaves and streamed across the forest glade.
After the monsoon, when the dark red berries had ripened on the hawthorn, this pretty tree was visited by green pigeons, the kokla birds of Garhwal, who clambered upside-down among the fruit-laden twigs. And during winter, a white-capped redstart perched on the bare branches of the wild pear tree and whistled cheerfully. He had come to winter in the garden.
The pines grew on the next hill. But there was a small blue one, a Himalayan chir, a little way below my cottage, and sometimes I sat beneath it to listen to the wind playing softly in its branches.
Opening the window at night, I usually had something to listen to, the mellow whistle of the pygmy owlet, or the cry of a barking deer which had scented the proximity of a panther.
Some sounds I could not recognize at the time. They were strange night sounds that I now know as the sounds of the trees themselves, scratching their limbs in the dark, shifting a little, flexing their fingers. Great trees of the mountains, they know me well. They know my face in the window, they see me watching them, as I did then—watching them grow, listening to their secrets, bowing my head before their outstretched arms and seeking their benediction.
Sometimes, there would be a strange silence, and I would see the moon coming up, and two distant deodars in perfect silhouette.
On the road outside the cottage, someone came up to me in the dark and kissed me and ran away. Who could it have been? So soft and warm and all-encompassing…The moment stayed with me all night.
Who could it have been? I must find out. No, I must never find out.
There was light snowfall by morning. Just enough to cloak the deodars for an hour or two, before it all melted away.
Man cannot help but live in conformity with his nature; his subconscious is more powerful than his conscious mind.
A bright young schoolgirl once asked me, ‘Sir, what is your philosophy of life?’ She had me stumped. Should I tell her that I had just bumbled along? Would I disappoint her if I said that I was old but had no wisdom to offer? Well, better give her the truth, I decided and had her stumped.
This morning I was pondering on this absence of a philosophy or religious outlook in my make-up, and feeling a little low because it was cloudy and dark outside, and gloomy weather always seems to dampen my spirits. Then the clouds broke up and the sun came out, large, yellow splashes of sunshine in my room and upon my desk, and almost immediately I felt an uplift of spirit. And at the same time I realized that no philosophy would be of any use to a person so susceptible to changes in light and shade, sunshine and shadow. I was a pagan, pure and simple; sensitive to touch and colour and fragrance and odour and sounds of every description; a creature of instinct, of spontaneous attractions, given to illogical fancies and attachments. As a guide I am of little use to anyone, least of all to myself.
I think the best advice I ever had was contained in these lines from Shakespeare which my father had copied into one of my notebooks when I was nine years old:
This above all, to thine own self be true,
And it must follow as the night of the day,
Thou can’st not then be false to any man.
Each one of us is a mass of imperfections, and to be able to recognize and live with our imperfections—our basic natures, defects of genes and birth—makes, I think, for an easier transit on life’s journey.
Beer in the sun. High in the spruce tree the barbet calls, heralding summer. A few puffy clouds drift lazily over the mountains. Is this the great escape?
At some time during the day I must put pen to paper and produce something readable. There’s not much money left in the bank.
Yes, but look at the honeybees—look at them push their way through the pursed lips of the antirrhinum and disappear completely. A few minutes later they stagger out again, bottoms first.
I think Tolstoy summed it all up when he said: ‘One ought only to write when one leaves a piece of one’s flesh in the ink-pot each time one dips one’s pen.’
To which I might humbly add: There is something to be said for ink-pots. And the hand that holds the pen. It must be far more difficult to share one’s body and soul with a typewriter or computer. I abandoned the typewriter long ago. There is something sensual, physical, intimate about writing by hand. It takes me back to my childhood, when I was first learning to write letters and join them together. When I had any difficulty, my father would put his hand on mine and guide it along the page.
His hand is still there. I feel it now, even as I write.
And may loving, long-gone hands touch yours, dear reader. We are not alone.